Rumi's Mathnawi (selections)

Week 6: Middle East - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

The Merchant and his Clever Parrot

Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 800 words.

This is one of my favorite stories in Rumi: it seems like a simple story about a trick, the kind of story you might read in Aesop - but Rumi finds a really elegant symbolic meaning in this story, revealing a spiritual lesson taught by the clever parrot. This is a parrot who speaks "spiritual truths"!

The Merchant and his Clever Parrot (trans. E.H. Whinfield)

There was a certain merchant who kept a parrot in a cage. Being about to travel to Hindustan on business, he asked the parrot if he had any message to send to his kinsmen in that country, and the parrot desired him to tell them that he was kept confined in a cage.

The merchant promised to deliver this message, and on reaching Hindustan, duly delivered it to the first flock of parrots he saw. On hearing it one of them at once fell down dead. The merchant was annoyed with his own parrot for having sent such a fatal message, and on his return home sharply rebuked his parrot for doing so. But the parrot no sooner heard the merchant's tale than he too fell down dead in his cage.

The merchant, after lamenting his death, took his corpse out of the cage and threw it away; but, to his surprise, the corpse immediately recovered life, and flew away, explaining that the Hindustani parrot had only feigned death to suggest this way of escaping from confinement in a cage.

"The Indian Parrot" (trans. Coleman Barks)

There was a merchant setting out for India.
He asked each male and female servant
what they wanted to be brought as a gift.
Each told him a different exotic object:
A piece of silk, a brass figurine,
a pearl necklace.
Then he asked his beautiful caged parrot,
the one with such a lovely voice,
and she said,
"When you see the Indian parrots,
describe my cage. Say that I need guidance
here in my separation from them. Ask how
our friendship can continue with me so confined
and them flying about freely in the meadow mist.
Tell them that I remember well our mornings
moving together from tree to tree.
Tell them to drink one cup of ecstatic wine
in honor of me here in the dregs of my life.
Tell them that the sound of their quarreling
high in the trees would be sweeter
to hear than any music."
This parrot is the spirit-bird in all of us,
that part that wants to return to freedom,
and is the freedom. What she wants
from India is herself!
So this parrot gave her message to the merchant,
and when he reached India, he saw a field
full of parrots. He stopped
and called out what she had told him.
One of the nearest parrots shivered
and stiffened and fell down dead.
The merchant said, "This one is surely kin
to my parrot. I shouldn't have spoken."
He finished his trading and returned home
with the presents for his workers.
When he got to the parrot, she demanded her gift.
"What happened when you told my story
to the Indian parrots?"
"I'm afraid to say."
"Master, you must!"
"When I spoke your complaint to the field
of chattering parrots, it broke
one of their hearts.
She must have been a close companion,
or a relative, for when she heard about you
she grew quiet and trembled, and died."
As the caged parrot heard this, she herself
quivered and sank to the cage floor.
This merchant was a good man.
He grieved deeply for his parrot, murmuring
distracted phrases, self-contradictory -
cold, then loving - clear, then
murky with symbolism.
A drowning man reaches for anything!
The Friend loves this flailing about
better than any lying still.
The One who lives inside existence
stays constantly in motion,
and whatever you do, that king
watches through the window.
When the merchant threw the "dead" parrot
out of the cage, it spread its wings
and glided to a nearby tree!
The merchant suddenly understood the mystery.
"Sweet singer, what was in the message
that taught you this trick?"
"She told me that it was the charm
of my voice that kept me caged.
Give it up, and be released!"
The parrot told the merchant one or two more
spiritual truths. Then a tender goodbye.
"God protect you," said the merchant
"as you go on your new way.
I hope to follow you!"

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what did the parrot ask his owner to do?
  • what did the wild parrots of India do when they heard the message from the captive parrot?
  • how did the captive parrot manage to escape his cage?

Source: E. H. Whinfield, The Masnavi (1898). Weblink.
Source: Coleman Barks, One-Handed Basket Weaving. Maypop Books, 1991

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM